Dr. Francis Peabody one wrote: “The secret of the care of the patient is caring for the patient.” We must practice self-care in order to prevent becoming “Wounded Warriors.”
Adversity is one of the primary reasons people seek help, and it is the mission of the mental health professional to provide guidance to those who are suffering. But some of the long-term consequences of working with individuals in crisis is stress, burnout and compassion fatigue.
Mental health professionals are a constant witness to a wide range of emotions, such as anxiety, sadness, grief, fear and anger. Giving too much can take its toll. It is not a flaw, but rather, a hazard of the role. As such, there is a great need for mental health professionals to practice self-care. It is crucial they listen to their own body’s cues, which often warns when rest, relation and extended downtime is needed. Learning to recognize these complex symptoms of compassion fatigue can prove priceless:
- A persistent feeling of sadness, anxiety, or emotional emptiness
- Constant sensations of hopelessness, pessimism, or helplessness
- Problems concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
- Diminished energy levels
- Feeling constantly fatigued
Caring for Staff
Mental health professionals need both supervision and mentorship. Bernard & Goodyear (1998) defined supervision as an evaluative relationship between a senior and junior member of the profession whose purpose is to “enhance the professional functioning” of the supervisee. According to the authors, supervisors are the culture carriers for the profession and are responsible for directing and nurturing the development of the supervisee’s skills and professional identity.
Supervisees who have unrealistic expectations for themselves and others are more apt to experience stress and burnout. This is why being open and presenting yourself as a whole human being with shortcomings and doubts is so crucial to the development of new clinicians. It helps them to prepare them for the realities of the profession. This relationship will set the stage for their future. Be real and offer them what you wish you had at the start of your career.
- Seek to understand supervisees as whole, complex people.
- Don’t limit your focus to just work issues.
- Let supervisees know that they’re seen as a whole person.
- Understand that supervisees are not just an extension of your role.
- Keep an eye out for signs of stress, burnout, or compassion fatigue.
- Share both approval and concerns.
- Talk about the times when you’ve had doubts.
- Be open to hearing mistakes.
- Share your own mistakes.
- Reiterate that lessons are learned from mistakes.
- Be honest, clear, and direct about expectations.
- Make “office politics” a regular part of your discussions.
As supervisors, it is imperative that we model and encourage staff self-care. It is important to help workers to develop a preventive maintenance plan to lessen the effects of secondary traumatic stress – which ultimately leads to burnout and compassion fatigue. Due to the major changes in the profession over the last decade, there is an increased number of traumatized patients, more diverse populations, shorter terms for treatment, new fiduciary responsibilities, and new outcome measures. We must serve clients despite our own personal losses and fears, a hostile political climate, and a major loss of funding.
Like effective clinical work, effective supervision must be taught. However, new supervisors often get promoted to meet an organizational need and may not be trained for their new assignment. While all clinicians receive training during their education, most new supervisors begin to supervise with little or no supervisory training.
Things to Remember
- The quality of the supervisee’s future leadership skills is closely related to the quality of the supervision they have received.
- Experienced leaders need continuing education and supplemental training in order to meet new challenges.
- Collaboration with peers is a career-long process.
- Encouraging and modeling self-care is essential.
- Supervisees need a plan to avoid burnout and compassion fatigue.
- Maintaining wellness should be a regular part of supervision.
- It is important to assess yourself and your organization for signs of stress.
- Strategies for positive change and healing must be created and shared.
Leading by Example
We can’t be personally falling apart and serve as an example of what good self-care is all about. As clinical leaders, we carry many responsibilities and roles. But our primary role is the care and development of our supervisees. There is a parallel process between our own needs, the needs of our supervisees, and the needs of the people we serve. We all need:
- A peaceful work environment: We spend the largest part of our lives at work, and therefore our work environment reflects us.
- Good supervision: For seasoned professionals, this might take the form of consultation.
- Coaching: We all need help in flushing out ideas about our own missions.
- Professional development: We all need to think about our goals and next steps.
- Mentoring: Mentorship comes in many forms and helps to keep our spirits and hopes alive.
- Recognition: We need recognition no matter where we are in our profession – we need it emotionally for ourselves and we need to give it to others.
Practicing What We Preach
Working with the younger staff reminds me that work/life balance is what we must strive for. New clinicians must be clear that if they want a life, they must be mindful of this balance. Work-life balance allows us to:
- Nurture ourselves
- Be nurtured by others
- Cut down our risk for burnout
- Avoid compassion fatigue
- Continue to offer our best to clients/constituents
The compensation issue is paramount for mental health professionals. We need to continue to advocate for higher staff salaries with government, contractors, and funders. In our society, our value continues to be equated with money. Care of staff requires that appropriate salary be allocated to maintain a decent standard of living, and to attract – and keep – talented individuals in the profession.
One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned is that collaboration is the key to success. We need to partner with clients and not just provide for them. We need to collaborate with other institutions and groups so no one is working alone. When we work together, we can create a wider array of services, and do this more cost effectively. We do not have to work in silos and reinvent the wheel. Our greatest asset is ourselves – the mental health workforce. We must care for our leaders as well as our staff so we can offer our very best to those we serve.